On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

Our children love books.  We visit the public library every Friday and typically exit with one or two full tote bags (the only exception being days when our kids are so upset at the thought of leaving the library that they start yelling, at which point we might fail to check out any of the books we’d set aside).

At home, our children spend an hour or two each day reading.  Our preschooler actually knows how; our two-year-old flips through the pages of his favorites and recites aloud as much of the text as he remembers.  With his current favorites, like The Itchy Book, Potato Pants, or I Will Take a Nap, his versions are quite close to the printed edition.

Before our four year old learned to read, I never would have expected how sad her growth would make me feel.  She still curls up in my arm to hear bedtime stories, and she likes to read comic strips together for the chance to have jokes explained to her, but she’s been devouring The Magic Treehouse series and early chapter books by Beverly Cleary on her own.

Our family is fairly liberal.  We devote a lot of our free time to advocacy for environmental causes, veganism, justice, gender equality … and, when I read books to our children, I often change the words. 

In Owl at Home, our readings have Owl telling winter, “Do not come back,” as the text reads, but we also add “until you have changed your ways.”  Because, the kids agree, everyone should have a chance to grow; we all make mistakes and could use second chances.

In The Snowy Day, Peter tries to join “the big kids” in their snowball fight before realizing that he isn’t quite old enough yet.

And in many books, we change the foods that characters are eating.  Our kids love animals, and it’s easier for them to enjoy a story if the characters have tofu or vegetables on their plates instead of an animal.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a beautiful book that needs no substitutions.  I trawled through a few lists of vegan kids’ books, but many of these, like Dave Loves Chickens, are blatantly ideological texts that don’t quite work as stories.  And so, in case you were looking for recommendations, here are a few of our family’s favorites.

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow tells the story of a group of pigs who escape from a truck when a pair of farmers are taking them to market.  When the piglets first arrive, one of the farmers remarks that they’re cute, but the other reminds her, “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them!”

But the pigs are lovable, and quite clever too.  They sabotage the farmers’ truck in a way that will abet their escape, then later steal clothes to disguise themselves as regular civilians.  (Lest you worry that the book encourages thievery, you should know that the pigs later mail a package full of clothing, returning everything they took.  Everyone is overjoyed to receive their belongings back – except the farmers, who receive a cheerful postcard instead of their lost pigs.)

We also purchased a copy to give to our local farmed animal sanctuary … after using watercolors and packing tape to modify the art so that the pigs were escaping to that sanctuary instead of to Florida.

The Dog House by Jan Thomas features a quartet of animal friends who accidentally toss their ball into a spooky doghouse.  One by one the animals go inside, attempting to retrieve the ball, but they don’t come out again.  Eventually only the mouse is left and he whimpers, “Won’t you come back out, duck?”  But a big, scary-looking dog stomps outside to say, “No, because I’m having duck for dinner!”

The mouse is horrified – someone is eating his friend!

Except that the dog is having duck stay as a guest – the animals all share a tasty vegan meal with parsnips and other vegetables.

Our family lives with a big, scary-looking pit bull, as well as a rather wolf-like hound dog … both of whom are vegan.

Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell tells the story of Jane Goodall learning how to quietly observe nature, the skill that enabled her scientific discoveries.  There are several charming children’s books about Jane Goodall (we also like The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, which describes her research in more detail), but we love McDonnell’s art. 

When our preschooler first learned to read, she favored comic strips.  She had recently turned four and loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Heck, I love Calvin and Hobbes too.  But I’m a wee bit older than four.  I’d like to think that I have a good grasp on the concepts like irony and antiheroes.  Our child did not.  She asked, “Mama, what’s a poopy head?” because Hobbes had slung that insult at Calvin.  Well, that’s not ideal, but, fine.  Kids are eventually going to learn salty language.

Worse, our kid’s behavior tanked.  She started raging, battling her sibling, kicking dust at the playground … when we pulled her aside to talk about that last activity, she explained, “Calvin says it’s the best part of playing baseball!”

Well, yes, there is a comic strip where Calvin says that.  I had to explain that grown-ups think it’s funny because Calvin is doing the wrong thing.  Our kid nodded, but the expression on her face made me think that she was dubious.

So I wound up hiding all our Calvin and Hobbes.  Soon after, I hid all our Peanuts, which also feature kids acting less kindly than we would like.

But McDonnell’s Mutts?  Mutts can stay.  The characters are mostly gentle and kind, and we feel confident that McDonnell shares our passion for treating both our neighbors and our planet with respect.

So Me, Jane is a book about a prominent vegan activist that is written and drawn by a prominent vegan cartoonist.  But it’s not sanctimonious in the least – it’s values are like deep currents, coursing beneath the text.  I would feel comfortable sharing that book with any child, even if I knew nothing about the parents’ political beliefs, because the only explicit statements stress the value of patience and hard work.

Gus’s Garage by Leo Timmers features a asiduous mechanic who lets nothing go to waste.  The book begins with a large mound of what appears to be useless junk next to Gus’s small shop, but as various animals arrive and describe their travails, Gus is able to engineer solutions to their problems with the materials he has on hand.

Again, there is no explanation given in the text for why Gus lives the way he does.  And I like that – because the message is so subtle, a wide range of people could enjoy this book.  Gus is both resourceful and ingenious, in a way that might evoke the survival skills that many Americans of my grandmother’s generation developed during the Great Depression, and which exemplifies the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra taught to elementary schoolchildren of my own generation.

Plus, the art is excellent and the sing-song rhymes are a pleasure to read aloud.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke beautifully conveys why a family needs rules: a fair set of rules can allow a group of very different individuals to live together peacefully.  Interested in talking to a two- or three-year-old about the refugee crisis?  There is a troll who arrives at Julia’s door after fleeing political turmoil at home (the city has torn down his bridge).  Trying to introduce your children to the concept of chores?  Julia eventually crafts a “chore chart,” giving everyone a manageable task that relies upon the guests’ unique talents.

(Perhaps I should mention, since I’m including Julia’s House for Lost Creatures in a list of vegan children’s books, that one picture depicts the imp-like folletti roasting something that looks very much like a chicken in the oven.  Since our kids have never seen this food, I’m not sure they ever realized.  And, besides, we’ve talked to them about veganism as a way of being kind – and this book is exceptionally kind.)

For slightly older children, you could try the early reader chapter book Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley.  This is part of The Critter Club series, about a group of friends (when we read this aloud, we always change “the girls” into “the friends” or “the kids” … our preschooler will actually make substitutions like this on her own when she reads aloud to her sibling) who form something like an animal shelter in a neighbor’s barn. 

I had originally assumed that the kids in The Critter Club, who bonded over their love of animals, would all be vegetarian, but no such luck.  And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I personally find the entire series to be like the literary equivalent of cotton candy.  There are some kids’ books, like Nate the Great, that I enjoy as much or more than my kids do … but not these.  Still, I’m not the target audience.  Our preschooler loves these.  The characters typically undergo some form of mild conflict that is just complicated enough for her to understand.  And a perfectly happy resolution will come after a few dozen pages.

In Ellie and the Good Luck Pig, the piglet is adopted by someone who runs a sanctuary for famed animals. 

Our family doesn’t manage to volunteer at our local farmed animal sanctuary as often as we did before having kids, but we’ve still gone several times in the last few years for me to pitch in some work.  Our kids like visiting – they especially like getting to see the pigs – but the drive is hard.

I’ve heard it gets easier, though.  Eventually they’ll grow up.  They’ll be able to sit quietly – reading, no doubt – in the car for a few hours at a time.

And I’ll feel sad.  Their intellectual journeys will leave me behind.

But I hope that we will have set them off in the right direction.

On baby books.

With a summertime haul from Indy Reads Books.
With our summertime haul from an excellent bookstore.

Today is the first day of school in town (which seems so early!  It’s still clearly summer outside), so I’m back to being primary daytime parent.  Which means I’ll be doing a lot of reading.  Which, okay, that in itself isn’t so different from how I spend my work time normally, but what I read is fairly different.  Instead of contemporary fiction, nonfiction about violence against women or racial injustice, research papers from a variety of fields … I’ll be reading board books.

Some board books are pretty good, though.  Today’s post will be a paean to my current favorite, Everywhere Babies.  Within the confines of the genre, Everywhere Babies is a fine piece of literature.

Two glorious pages of Everywhere Babies.

In some ways, it might be reminiscent of David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.  And I say “might” because, uh, I haven’t read Lancy’s book; I placed a hold request at the university library as soon as I read Michael Erard’s lovely recommendation in the New York Times (“The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need”), but several other patrons apparently had the same idea.  I sometimes gaze longingly at the online cataloge entry; it has several times cycled between “Checked Out” and “Material on Hold for a Borrower,” but that borrower has never been me.

Still, the impression I got from Erard’s article is that The Anthropology of Childhood will make you feel good about your parenting decisions.  Such a wide range of parenting strategies, ranging from coddling to full-on neglect, have been employed successfully in the past.  Your parenting might well work too.

Reading Everywhere Babies conveys a similar message.  Marla Frazee, the excellent illustrator, depicts a wide range of families making a wide range of parenting decisions — for instance the page “Every day, everywhere, babies are carried” shows babies transported in cars, wagons, strollers, backpacks, frontpacks, schlepped in a parent’s arms — and those decisions are all portrayed lovingly, as families trying their best.  Frazee’s art suggests that whatever you’re doing is probably okay.

All sorts of ways.

We began reading this book to N within a week of her birth, and have read it to her at least once a week ever since, and another charming feature of Everywhere Babies is how well it depicts child development.  A page about food displays baby mealtime behavior as it changes over time, and the book as a whole progresses from newborns sleeping & being carried to infants crawling, playing, & learning to walk.  Despite N being our first, K and I were able to nod sagely and say, “Yeah, this is normal,” because our baby’s behavior was mirrored by one of Frazee’s illustrations.

And, right, Susan Meyers‘ text is charming too — musically rhythmic, internal rhymes — very easy to read in a variety of sing-song-y cadences.

If you’re going to be having a kid, or know someone who is, you should look for Everywhere Babies.

It’s especially impressive when compared to other texts in the genre.  Another book that N enjoys is Fuzzy Bee & Friends, but, let’s face it: as literature, Fuzzy Bee & Friends is a travesty.  First off, the titular protagonist, Fuzzy Bee, never appears in the book.  Reminds me of the Simpsons episode wherein Bart gets a fake i.d.: “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.”

And, misnaming aside, Fuzzy Bee & Friends is such a dark book.  It ends with intimations of suicide, the page “It’s such a hot and sunny day, Baby Worm just wants to play.”  Baby Worm is crawling up out of the grass toward the hot sun, at which point it seems inevitable that Baby Worm will desiccate and die.  That’s not the sort of thing I want to read to my daughter!  Especially because my brain is wired such that it’s irresistible for me to explain the psychological implications of Baby Worm’s decisions while reading to her.

Why, Baby Worm?  Why?

9781596438668And N is a little young for this one, but I’ve loved reading Julia’s House for Lost Creatures to her.  Yes, the book is about rules (at one point Julia ducks into her workshop to draw up a chore chart), but the rules are gently imposed and only upon the recipients of Julia’s bountiful generosity.  The rules are well-articulated and clearly non-arbitrary; even with my rebellious streak & distaste for authority figures, I approve.

Plus, Julia solves problems by writing.  She has a workshop and hammers together signposts.  She’s kind but firm: showers love on obsolete monsters who clearly need affection, but won’t let them take undue advantage.  And all the misfits she welcomes into her home have talents that they can feel proud of (and which they employ to fulfill the tasks on Julia’s chore chart: the mermaid washes dishes, a dragon lights the fire… the troll becomes a disc jockey?).  And the art is beautiful: good job, Ben Hatke.

And, right, today being the first day of school means I’ll be reading all three of these today.  And more!  Just have to make it to 3:15 p.m.